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  • Strangely modern - Symbolist cinema in unlikely places
    Posted on Jun 22, 2021
    If your image of early Russian cinema is fixed on the revolutionary work of the 1920s, such as The Battleship Potemkin or The End of St Petersburg, you may be in for a shock. It was in 1989, at the annual silent film festival in Pordenone, Italy, that received ideas about Russian cinema received a mortal blow. What unspooled over a week in this quiet Friulian town was a cache of films dating from the decade before the 1917 October revolution, which few historians had any idea existed. These were films that reflected the last years of Imperial Russia, in all its opulence and decadence, with ele…
  • Proust’s Odette and the Supernatural Art of Women’s Fashion
    Posted on Jun 15, 2021
    ‘Woman is quite within her rights, indeed she is even accomplishing a kind of duty, when she devotes herself to appearing magical and supernatural […]. Thus she has to lay all the arts under contribution for the means of lifting herself above Nature, the better to conquer hearts and rivet attention. It matters but little that the artifice and trickery are known to all, so long as their success is assured and their effect always irresistible.’1 Portrait of Jeanne Duval by Charles Baudelaire In The Painter of Modern Life (1863), Charles Baudelaire provocatively argues that art, beauty, and eve…
  • A republic of virtue reconstructed in plaster
    Posted on Jun 9, 2021
    Maximilien Robespierre is now best known as the archetype of the ideological revolutionary, a Jacobin leader who presided over the French Revolutionary Terror between 1792 and 1794 and the execution by guillotine or in prison of nearly 30,000 aristocrats, Royalists and political opponents, including women and children. What is less often recalled is that Robespierre was a gifted Latinist and, like many of his fellow revolutionaries, sought through cold-hearted ideological purity to transform France into a republic of virtue, modelled on the supposed qualities of ancient republican Rome. Classi…
  • The songs of Emmanuel Chabrier, ‘The least illiterate of musicians’
    Posted on Jun 1, 2021
    Composers have inspired no shortage of poems over the centuries, but there’s something especially touching about the sonnet Paul Verlaine dedicated in 1888 to the friend of his youth, Emmanuel Chabrier: À Emmanuel Chabrier (Paul Verlaine: from Amour, 1888) Chabrier, nous faisions, un ami cher et moi, Des paroles pour vous qui leur donniez des ailes, Et tous trois frémissions quand, pour bénir nos zèles, Passait l’Ecce deus et le Je ne sais quoi. Chez ma mère charmante et divinement bonne, Votre génie improvisait au piano, Et c’était tout autour comme un brûlant anneau De sympathie et d’ais…
  • Les Chansons de Bilitis – Love and licence in the ancient Greek diaspora
    Posted on May 26, 2021
    In April 1893 the French author Pierre Louÿs (1870 – 1925) attended the London première of Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance and noted the presence of the young Aubrey Beardsley in a nearby box. It was not the only connection between the two men. Louÿs had been the dedicatee of the original French version of Wilde’s Salomé, whose English translation Beardsley illustrated. Author and artist also shared obsessions typical of their period – with classical Greek and Roman texts; with erotica, courtesans and transgressive same-sex relationships; with music, especially Wagner; and with dandyism…
  • Simple pleasures: Verlaine's poetry and prose
    Posted on May 19, 2021
    I first read Verlaine’s Romances sans paroles as an undergraduate in 1989 and they have stayed with me ever since. I have taught this slim volume of 22 poems to students at the University of Leeds for the last ten years as part of a course entitled ‘The Pleasures of French Poetry’, where Verlaine is sandwiched between Baudelaire and Rimbaud. The privilege of being able to lecture on these wonderful lyric poems every year and to watch students do seminar presentations on them, often beautifully illustrated with different images or pieces of music, is enhanced by the new insights each presentati…
  • Throwing a punch for Wagner: Revolution, gender, and the soundtrack of Decadence
    Posted on May 11, 2021
    Hooligans are not normally associated with classical music. Concert halls tend to be places of anticipatory silence, of repetitive and reverent ritual, and if there is any violence, it’s usually in the music rather than from the audience (except for the odd fierce glare). Not so in the concert halls of 1860s Paris – a city that throughout the nineteenth century was constantly dangling its feet over the edge of various revolutionary challenges and that would, in 1870, fall into near anarchy after a push from the Franco-Prussian War. In such an atmosphere, musical performances – which perhaps pr…
  • Music and Nuance, or Not:
    Posted on May 5, 2021
    Songs for Her & Odes in Her Honour Whenever I spend time with professors, modern Areopagites, or simple friends and the topic of conversation turns to Paul Verlaineʼs poetry, – which I have to admit, does not happen all that often – the first things that come to minds and lips are music and nuance. Music and nuance. So what about the music and nuance in the English translation of Paul Verlaineʼs Songs for Her and Odes in Her Honour which I have just prepared for publication? That would be a good subject for a blog, wouldn’t it? But here’s the thing: there isnʼt any. Nuance, I mean. Sure, …
  • A great adventure in the arts
    Posted on Apr 26, 2021
    Original artwork by Hannah Kent 20211 In 2011 I embarked on a great adventure. An opportunity arose to save the house at 8 Royal College Street once occupied by the poets Rimbaud and Verlaine and to develop it as a ‘poetry house’, a centre for the arts and education in Camden. On the back of this opportunity, I founded the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation (R&V) and threw myself into the task of developing it as an arts organisation. From this unusual starting point, a whole new wave of activities in the arts took shape. In October 2020 the legacy gift of the property to R&V was withdra…
  • Ballet with Beardsley: the diary of the Russian modernist Mikhail Kuzmin
    Posted on Apr 20, 2021
    Aubrey Beardsley Born in the same year as the iconic English decadent Aubrey Beardsley (1872–1898), the prominent Russian modernist writer and musician Mikhail Kuzmin (1872–1936) used to play with the date of his birth changing it in various testimonies from 1872 to 1875 and sometimes to 1877. The desire to curate his biography persisted throughout his life, and so did his preoccupation with Beardsley. ‘I was sitting there, digesting Beardsley and my destiny’, Kuzmin noted in his diary on 5 September 1929, thirty years after Sergei Diaghilev’s journal Mir iskusstva (World of Art) had reproduc…
  • Poetry Beneath the Waves: ‘Le Bateau ivre’ and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas
    Posted on Apr 13, 2021
    Avant-garde poetry might justifiably be seen as the most rarefied of literary genres. But many pioneering nineteenth-century poets had a magpie-like quality, drawing from any and all sources in search of literary inspiration, and they were not averse to including popular fiction in this repertoire of material. At times, these references might be oblique – certainly to a 21st-century reader – but sometimes the traces of the poet’s sources are more evident. This is certainly the case for Rimbaud’s ‘Le Bateau ivre’: it has long been argued that the imagery of the poem draws from Jules Verne’s Twe…
  • A model house for the arts
    Posted on Apr 7, 2021
    Like many children I loved miniature figurines and model buildings. Some of the latter, including the beautiful model of Fishbourne Roman Palace near Chichester or the build-it-yourself paper model of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in Southwark still resonate with me now. They felt (and still feel) as real as any full-scale buildings I have known. And in the case of the latter the model undoubtedly added to the groundswell of support for Sam Wanamaker’s full-scale recreation of the Globe, finally opened to the public in 1997. So, by creating a beautiful scale model of the ‘poetry house’ once oc…